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Batmania: 70 Years of The Dark Knight on Film

One of the most anticipated movies of the year and most eagerly awaited sequels of all time, The Dark Knight Rises opens on Friday, concluding director Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy and capping off what has so far been the highpoint of the Caped Crusader’s film career. Movie Ink takes a look back at the ups and downs of Batman’s cinematic history:

Batman (1943)
The Batman: Lewis Wilson
The Villain: Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish)
The Plot: This 15-part serial — made at the height of World War II — finds the Caped Crusader and his sidekick Robin (Douglas Croft) battling a Japanese mad scientist who has invented a device that turns people into zombie-like slaves.
The Verdict: Unlike a lot of comic book serials of that era, Batman’s mythos was butchered less than some other characters’, with most changes caused by budget limitations (i.e., the Batmobile is replaced by a black Cadillac limo). The serial also introduced the Batcave, which was subsequently carried over into the comics. Nevertheless, overall quality (or lack thereof) ranks it as one of the most ludicrous serials ever made — and that’s saying a lot.

Batman and Robin (1949)
The Batman: Robert Lowery
The Villain: The Wizard (Leonard Penn)
The Plot: This second 15-chapter serial finds Dynamic Duo battling the Wizard, a hooded villain with a device that allows him to control any motor vehicle within 50 miles. (The gizmo is fueled by diamonds, making it an alternative fuel only slightly cheaper than gasoline.)
The Verdict: The shoddy production values carried over into this production as well, with Lowery wearing a poorly designed costume, Batman and Robin tooling around Gotham in a ’49 Mercury convertible, and half-assed scripting that included such goofs as the Bat-Signal being used in broad daylight.

Batman (1966)
The Batman: Adam West
The Villains: The Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether)
The Plot: Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) must stop their nemeses from holding the world ransom with a super-dehydrator device that turns people into piles of dust.
The Verdict: The first feature-length Batman film, spun out of the campy 1960s TV series. West’s hammy concoction may not be the definitive Dark Knight but it was a brilliant product of its time that spoofed comic book heroes long before it was cool (or culturally relevant) to do so. As a live-action cartoon it was brilliant; on the downside, its campiness stuck with the character far longer than it should have.

Batman (1989)
The Batman: Michael Keaton
The Villain: The Joker (Jack Nicholson)
The Plot: Shaped by the murder of his parents as a boy, Bruce Wayne descends upon Gotham City as the Batman, initiating a war on crime just as one such gangster is transformed into the mass-murdering madman known as the Joker.
The Verdict: For the character’s 50th anniversary director Tim Burton delivered what no one else had to that point: a version of the Batman that actually tapped into the elements that make him tick. Burton’s movie combines film noir, brooding grittiness, and just a touch of campy humor with a neo-Art Deco/pseudo-Expressionistic visual flair. Initially greeted with skepticism, Keaton proved to be a superb Dark Knight, and Nicholson’s manic take on the Joker ranks as a career highlight. Aspects of the production design and marketing scheme echo throughout today’s comic book movie genre.

Batman Returns (1992)
The Batman: Michael Keaton
The Villains: The Penguin (Danny DeVeto) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)
The Plot: Batman is caught between a corrupt business (Christopher Walken) and the grotesque Penguin plotting to take over Gotham City and a vengeance-obsessed Catwoman.
The Verdict: Some viewers and critics were turned off by the tone of this sequel — even gloomier and darker in tone than its predecessor — but it’s become a cult classic thanks at least in part to surreal touches, eccentric production design, and examination of the lead characters’ neuroses. Pfeiffer’s scary-sexy portrayal of a Selina Kyle/Catwoman as a whip-wielding feminist avenger in slick vinyl fetish wear stands as one of the kinkiest performances ever.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
The Batman: Kevin Conroy
The Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill) and the Phantasm (Stacy Keach)
The Plot: A vigilante assassin implicates Batman in a series of gang-boss killings, just as Bruce Wayne attempts to reconnect with an old flame (Dana Delaney).
The Verdict: A feature-film spin-off of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series (itself spawned by the popularity of the Burton films), this animated movie actually gives most of its live-action counterparts a run for their money. A suitably grown-up story (Batman begins to reconsider his career as a crime fighter when faced with possibility of love and emotional stability), retro visual design, top-notch voice cast, and disarming intensity made it a pleasant surprise for die-hard fans of the Bat.

Batman Forever (1995)
The Batman: Val Kilmer
The Villains: The Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones)
The Plot: Batman gains a sidekick in the formed of hot-tempered circus acrobat Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) as he battles the combined menace of Two-Face and the Riddler, the latter of whom has deduced Batman’s secret identity.
The Verdict: Though hardcore fans loved the darker version of Batman who graced the screen in the early ’90s, Warner Bros. wanted a more family friendly Caped Crusader for the sake of box office returns; thus, they hired director Joel Schumacher, who returned Batman to the ’60s camp excess that he had just escaped from. Everything that the Burton movies worked went out the window in favor of thin plotting, flat characters, and wretched spectacle. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.

Batman & Robin (1997)
The Batman: George Clooney
The Villains: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman)
The Plot: More is less in this outing: The Dynamic Duo find themselves at odds with each other when the dual menace of a botanist gone mad and madder scientist who can only survive at below-freezing temperatures threatens Gotham. Fortunately, Batgirl is there to help.
The Verdict: So much went wrong here. Alicia Silverstone as a librarian who moonlights as Batgirl, Schwarzenegger dressed like a Terminator at a pride parade, Thurman projecting the world’s least-talented drag queen, the non-stop gawd-awful one-liners, and those fucking nipples on the fucking Batsuit. This installment caused the franchise to collapse under the sheer excess of stupidity and garishness, and stall the careers of almost everyone associated with it. For a while, Clooney would even give $10 and an apology to fans who personally admitted to having seen it. Schumacher effectively killed the franchise in its tracks, and it would be almost a full decade before it would be resurrected.

Batman Begins (2005)
The Batman: Christian Bale
The Villains: Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy)
The Plot: The origin of the Batman is presented in-depth for the first time on film, as personal tragedy drives Bruce Wayne to hone himself into the ultimate avenger. He returns to a Gotham City infested with criminals and corrupt cops, and joins forces with Sgt. James Gordon to break the mob’s hold on the city, though an even bigger threat lurks in the background.
The Verdict: Although director Christopher Nolan crams quite a lot into one movie, his back-to-basics reboot brought Batman back to life with an origin story that filled in a lot of blanks and made the character feel fresh. On the surface, the lack of a dominant villain seems like a flaw, but it allowed for more focus on Bruce Wayne and his alter ego and a thorough examination of the man behind the cape and cowl.

The Dark Knight (2008)
The Batman: Christian Bale
The Villains: The Joker (Heath Ledger) and Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart)
The Plot: Batman, Lt. Gordon, and district attorney Harvey Dent’s relentless war on crime drives Gotham’s desperate mobsters to hire the services of the Joker, an utterly insane and unpredictable criminal who only wants to spread chaos and destruction.
The Verdict: Arguably the best comic book movie to date. Nolan and company deliver the superhero-equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy with a gritty, layered, ambitious story populated by vivid characters and punctuated with brilliantly stage action beats. As the Joker, the late Ledger gives an unforgettable performance as a villain for the ages, a walking embodiment of nihilism who damn near steals the entire movie.

About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.


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